The Ballad of a Legendary Country Songwriter
Interview by Edd Hurt
It was sometime in 2007 when Bobby Braddock wrote to me about my review of the memoir he had just published. He thought it was a decent piece of writing and didn't take exception to my description of him as a nervous wreck with a hectic mind. I had even managed to work something fancy into it, calling Down in Orburndale: A Songwriter's Youth in Old Florida a "portrait of a young extremist." He didn't complain about that either. I was pleased he noticed the review, which ran in No Depression in February 2007. I used to try to write like I thought the No Depression guys wanted me to- a bit folksy and woebegone, very earnest and troubled by the world- but I never could quite pull it off. Anyway, I didn't need to adjust my style to convey my appreciation for Braddock's style. He could write about working with rockabilly singer Benny Joy in Florida, where Auburndale may still be pronounced as Braddock renders it in the title of his book, as briskly as he could describe hanging out back home in that Central Florida town with his parents, who fed him cowpeas and key lime pie the young musician washed down with buttermilk to offset the Benzedrine he required to be able to play Eddie Boyd songs all night long in local clubs.
Down in Orburndale was a landmark music memoir and the work of a real writer who possessed the novelistic virtues of a good ear, a discerning eye and a feel for the way social situations fed artistic scenes. Braddock moved to Nashville in 1964 and became a major country songwriter, drawing a weekly paycheck from Tree Publishing. At Tree, fellow songwriter Curly Putman, who would later collaborate with Braddock to write George Jones' epochal 1980 hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today," plugged his songs. Tree head Buddy Killen pegged Braddock as a writer of novelty tunes (the rock world had its New Dylans; Nashville had its New Roger Millers), and the former Florida rock 'n' roll piano player hung out in Music City with writers like Don Wayne, author of the immortal Lefty Frizzell hit "Saginaw, Michigan" and the Del Reeves novelty song "The Belles of Southern Bell." He listened hard to the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's, itself a kind of novelty album.
After an eight-year hiatus, Braddock published the second volume of his memoirs, 2015's Bobby Braddock: A Life on Music Row. Like Orburndale, it's the product of an unusual mind. Braddock is frank about his relationships with women, which seem to have colored his creative process. He makes a pass at describing Billy Sherrill and George Jones, but A Life on Music Row is about how Braddock made order out of a chaos that seemed always to follow him. Read his books, and listen to his songs. I can't imagine a less sentimental major country songwriter. Braddock is indeed a super-novelty, high-concept thinker. You can hear the influence of the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down" in his "Georgia in a Jug," a 1978 Johnny Paycheck hit. Sure, it's just another banal Nashville-to-Mexico trope, but Braddock also has the alcohol-soaked narrator--Paycheck--travel in his mind to Hawaii and Puerto Rico. It's the story of a man who just wanted to take his bride all the way to Mexico City on the bus. Braddock makes it clear that Paycheck's bride is not around, but the booze and pills are. What's Lennon-esque about "Georgia in a Jug" is the way the song accommodates a slightly out-of-meter line: "I'm going down to Mexico [pause] in a glass of tequila," Paycheck sings, as the band kicks back in.
This slightly abstract quality characterizes Braddock's songwriting. I've never failed to tell Bobby how much I admire his amazing song "Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half as Bad as Losing You)," perhaps the greatest example of the novelty tune as dead-serious country narrative. George Jones' 1973 rendering of "Nothing Ever Hurt Me" suggests the madness that drove the Possum. Jones fights kangaroos, nails his index finger to the wall and gets involved with a very statuesque woman from a family that has become rich by owning a "chain of liquor stores," exactly the kind of enterprise he should never have access to. Produced by Sherrill, it remains one of the most advanced concepts in country music by the greatest singer in country history. I also recommend Bobby's mini-masterpiece Hardpore Cornography, a 1983 album that may be the summation of his avant-novelty art. I don't think even Homer and Jethro could have sung so knowingly about Dolly Parton's hits. It's funny, weird stuff.
It took me a couple of years to make the date with Bobby, and we talked at a Music Row office in September 2018, during Nashville's yearly Americana music festival. He hasn't lost his old-school Southern accent, and he speaks swiftly and, I think, just a little hectically in a way that suits his genius. I edited our 75-minute conversation, but I can tell you that he found the time to show me a very cool Billy Sherrill piano lick, for which I'm eternally grateful.
PSF: Bobby, you did a podcast about country music in 2017 with Malcolm Gladwell, "The King of Tears," which is part of Gladwell's Revisionist History series. How did that come about?
BB: It's the one where he calls me the King of Tears. Malcolm, he always has a premise. I think of him as being like a modern-day P.T. Barnum. He's an intellectual and he's also a showman. He asked me to get other songwriters I had chemistry with, and we would just sit there and talk about music and stuff, and I said, "There's two I can get for you. One is this guy who's written all these great songs you know, and that's Don Schlltz. And the other one has a lot of songs that most people hadn't heard, and that's Don Henry." I call him a genius. It's me and Don Schlitz and Don Henry.
PSF: You grew up in the mid-'50s in Florida, when rock 'n' roll first hit the South. Did you ever see Elvis Presley back then?
BB: I never met Elvis. I felt like I knew him vicariously because I used to go with a girl who had been his Nashville girlfriend. She was 19. She told me, she said that stuff about his weird sexual things, voyeurism and all that, she said she never saw anything like that. She said, "The only thing that bothered me was he always had to have those guys [the Memphis Mafia] around. They were always right there." The defining moment for me was when I was watching this TV show out of Orlando, and I was probably 14 years old. The show was for teenagers, but they were dancin' to the Bop and the Jitterbug, same things their parents had been dancing to since World War II. They said there was a big controversy whether this guy was pop or hillbilly. Elvis came on and sang "Mystery Train" and I was a gone goose.
PSF: What about the Beatles? You write about listening to them in the '60's.
BB: The three big effects on me was Hank Williams, Ray Charles and the Beatles. I have a close friend, and we argue about music. He said, "I can't understand your passion for 'What'd I Say.'" I said, "For one thing, it is animal passion, this blatant sexuality, like he was fuckin' all the Raelettes, you know."
PSF: Ray Charles definitely had his hand on the wheel at all times.
BB: There was a time when there were more records like that.
PSF: Reading A Life on Music Row, I see you were working in Nashville with Benny Joy and Jimmy Gilmer and all these people who were kind of thrown into Nashville and this very unusual music scene.
BB: It's amazing that Benny Joy has stuck with you.
PSF: I'm a Benny Joy fan.
BB: Benny Joy was good. He was a great rockabilly writer. It's too bad He was a star in Tampa and that's about it. He was a crazy, paranoid guy. He was a great book character. Marty Robbins recorded a thing of mine called "While You're Dancing," which was kind of a ripoff of "Save the Last Dance for Me." I didn't even realize it when I wrote it. Benny accused me of stealing that from him, because he had a song called "I'm Just Another Fool on the Dance Floor." And I said, "Benny, you probably had 'and' in that song too, and I probably had 'and' in my song, you know." It was kind of a sad life, and he really didn't get that much acclaim. [Joy died in 1988.]
PSF: Tell me about how "He Stopped Loving Her Today" got recorded. For years writers have claimed Jones began cutting it in 1979 and finished it a year later. You debunk this notion in your book.
BB: I found out that's not true. At first, I was even believing it myself. But no, it was not true. I got all my journals down and figured that out.
PSF: So Jones and Sherrill didn't begin recording it in 1979 and punched in or added more stuff later. It was done in one session in February 1980, right?
BB: In February 1980, Curly and I took and did the thing and finally got the one [Sherrill] liked. He cut the next freakin' day. It was the next day they went in there and cut. It's not something he did over a period of months and months and months.
PSF: What do you think about the Sherrill-Jones records now, over 40 years later?
BB: I think those are great records. A lot of the purists, you know, were putting Billy Sherrill down because they said it was schlock. And now people think of that as some of the greatest traditional country music of all time. What is traditional? I don't know. Who knows what it is?
PSF: You do a good job of describing Sherrill and Jones, but to be honest with you, Bobby, I could have used a lot more about them.
BB: I didn't want to say [Sherrill] was a Nazi. He was way over to the right. He had Nazi memorabilia. I think he went into it not even really liking country very much. I think he liked Billy Sherrill country. He had that sound, man. It was very much from that era. You listen to it now and, number one, it sounds dated and, number two, it sounds great.
PSF: It does. The production on Jones tracks like "Her Name Is," another one of your great songs, is still weird and fascinating, its own thing.
BB: A lot of times I'll write a song and think it's a novelty song, and people will take it seriously. To me, "Her Name Is" was a serious song about my second wife, about Sparky, about us running around. It was pretty autobiographical.
Also see Bobby Braddock's website
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